We've got an important question - would you make the cheugy list?
With the coronavirus pandemic seeing millions of us forced indoors – and looking for something to do – it’s of little surprise that many turned to TikTok to pass the time. The video sharing app, which saw over 315 million downloads coming in the first quarter of 2020, became the new home for content to go viral. Be it recipes, memes or dance trends, what is popular, new and exciting tends to hit TikTok first for its mostly younger, Gen Z users to propel the topic to mainstream audiences.
One of the latest hashtags or terms that has surged in popularity over the last few weeks is ‘cheugy’, a phrase that gained traction after user Los Angeles-based writer, TikTok user webkinzwhore143 (real name Hallie Cain) brought it to international attention last month.
Describing those who embody the spirit of “millennial girl boss energy” as well as a very specific but instantly recognisable aesthetic, ‘cheugy’ has since become the latest sticking point for millennials in their ongoing ‘feud’ against Gen Z – who have previously decried millennial staples such as side partings, skinny jeans and the laugh-cry emoji as passé and embarrassing.
But what exactly does it mean to be ‘cheugy’? And why do we care so much even if Gen Z think we are? Well, here’s everything you need to know about the internet’s latest buzzword…
What is cheugy? What does cheugy mean?
According to the word’s creator, software designer Gaby Rasson, ‘cheugy’ (pronounced ‘choo-gee’) was a word she coined at high school in 2013 to describe people who were “slightly off trend” or “trying too hard”.
“It was a category that didn’t exist,” she told the New York Times. “There was a missing word that was on the edge of my tongue and nothing to describe it and ‘cheugy’ came to me. How it sounded fit the meaning.”
Think of cheugy as an updated version of the word ‘basic’. In the TikTok video that has since gone viral, Hallie explains: “[Cheugy] is the opposite of trendy, was maybe stylish at secondary school, but is no longer in style.”
The appeal of the word may stem from its phonology, argues Louis Cotgrove, a doctoral researcher of online youth language at the University of Nottingham.
“Neologisms are created all the time but most die out quickly, or are only used by small groups of people,” he explains. “A good illustration of this is perhaps the attempt by Lacey Chabert’s character in Mean Girls, Gretchen Wieners, to popularise the word ‘fetch’, which elicited the response by the more influential character, Regina George, to tell her “stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen”. While this example is fictional, it illustrates how some neologisms do not gain wider acceptance.
“As for why ‘cheugy’ became so popular? The long, open vowels, mean that it sounds like something a white Californian teenager would say (a subculture that has a lot of influence over mainstream trends in the USA and UK), and so others subconsciously accept it as appropriate.”
But despite its fairly recent popularity, TikTok already has a track record of seeing otherwise obscure things such as ‘cheugy’ become mainstream, says internet commentator and writer of the Garbage Day newsletter Ryan Broderick.
“Think of TikTok like a massive writers room, where everyone just throws something in and then things can get popular really, really fast,” he says. “That’s the culture of TikTok, it’s not so much inventing brand new things but repurposing them, remixing them, recreating them.
“TikTok’s algorithm optimises for trends. It looks to find content that can be copied and remixed for other users. That’s why you see challenges or weird hand movements or people dressing up as a certain type of idea very often on your #ForYou page. These trends create subcultures really, really fast.
“Everyone’s using the word cheugy and it’s going to be everywhere for two months, it’s going to be written up in the New York Times, there’s going to be comments written up about that, there’s a secondary cycle of people talking about the word, which blows it even further, and then before the whole things over, we’ve got something new to talk about as the app’s algorithm is so aggressive.”
Who is cheugy? Who's on the cheugy list?
A lot of items that have been associated with being ‘cheugy’ means the word tends to refer to objects and behaviours associated with a certain type of millennial woman. As Hallie herself said when she made the TikTok which got so much attention, cheugy is intended to refer to things that have a “millennial girlboss” energy.
Psychotherapist Sally Baker believes this new slang term has sprung up on TikTok as Gen-Z looking to bond with one another over their shared embarrassment of some millennial behaviour.
“The pandemic has seen this generation robbed of major milestones,” she explains. “They’ve had fewer rites of passage. time. So without real life milestones, they’re creating their own sense of traction, they’re niching that into obscure judgements about minutiae in order to form relationships with others their age.”
Louis agrees that creating their own slang is a way for the younger generation to form connections with one another.
“Slang is created to provide words to fill a semantic gap in a user’s lived experience, which is the opposite of universal,” he says. “However, when there are similarities in the lived experiences between multiple groups, these words can be adopted, and there is no greater universal experience than cringeing at older people thinking that they are cool.”
What are some examples of cheugy?
Live, love, laugh décor. Captioning a post on Instagram as ‘thank u, next.’ A Minion stood next to some sort of life mantra. These are just a small selection of things that have been defined as ‘cheugy.’
Other things that fit the cheugy bill include anything Harry Potter related, chokers, and items of clothing with slogans on them, such as ‘Yes way, Rosé’ or ‘Sea you at the beach’. The general consensus seems to be: if it’s an item that is some sort of throwback to the last ten years, then it’s most probably cheugy.
The TikTok hashtag #cheugy will help broaden the definition, alongside the Instagram page @cheuglife.
It’s understandable that millennials may be affronted by being described as ‘cheugy’, particularly as the vast bulk of things that are considered cheugy can be easily associated with trends some millennial women still avidly follow.
“Millennials are the first generation to have grown up on the internet,” Sally explains. “They invested hugely in being current, they were the first to master lots of tech, and they used to be the first to know about leading trends.
“But they’re starting to age out of that area of interest now, as their age bracket is between 25 and 40 years old. They’re starting to disappear from view, with Gen Z now forming the zeitgeist. I don’t think millennials ever realised that one day, they wouldn’t be current, they wouldn’t be trendsetters – which is why being described as old and ‘cheugy’ may be a shock to them.”
However, Hallie has said that the word ‘cheugy’ can be applied to anyone at any time, not just millennials still telling people ‘they lost their Hogwarts letter.’ The word itself isn’t necessarily always used in a derogatory sense, as Hallie admits she too owns some items that she describes as ‘cheugy.’
“We all have a little cheug in us,” she says with a shrug on TikTok.
Another example of peak ‘cheugy-ness’? This very article, Ryan laughs.
“Honestly, the most millennial thing possible is to write trend pieces about what Gen Z is doing,” he says. “The very idea of caring of what kids are doing on TikTok is a very millennial concept.
“It’s slang, right? It’s not meant to be agonised over. But there’s a need from millennials to make sense of new trends and subcultures.”
What makes someone ‘cheugy’?
While we may have a pretty solid idea of what constitutes the ‘cheugy’ aesthetic currently (a try-too-hard conformist with slightly out of date notions of fashion), trends - particularly those which became popular in part due to the aggressive TikTok algorithm - can change exceedingly quickly.
With the notion of ‘cheugy-ness’ being pretty subjective as it is, and with no real official gatekeeper watching over trends, the word could fast evolve to mean something else entirely.
“Before, there were only a few TV channels and newspapers telling us what was on trend and that was pretty much it,” Ryan explains. “Now, there’s the internet, where there’s so many subcultures interacting all the time.
“Cheugy can literally be anything you want it to be, no-one is officially telling us what is what. Anything can be anything. Now we might have a pretty good sense of what cheugy is, but in a week or two, it could completely change and get really silly.”
Ryan warns that, while trends and memes going viral is mostly harmless, the mechanism which propels information widely can quickly become dangerous. He refers to Pepe the Frog, a once harmless meme of an anthropomorphised frog from the 2005 comic ‘Boy’s Club’, which was appropriated by white supremacists and is now recognised internationally as a hate symbol.
“Its meaning could be hijacked like that, which could mean that ‘cheugy’ could be used to harass women despite originally meaning to be quite jokey,” he says. “The force that could make cheugy a worldwide phenomenon, or the Suez Canal the biggest joke in the world, is the same force that causes people to storm the Capitol Building.
“There’s no way to know where this goes because there’s no way to control culture. There’s no monoculture anymore, there’s just endless content.
“In the old days, there were figureheads telling us what’s on trend that can be recognised culturally. Now, it’s just random kids who create and discard trends, with little idea where things will head up. Trends can head into unknown territory.”